Introduction 

Labyrinthitis is an inner ear infection. It causes a delicate structure deep inside your ear called the labyrinth to become inflamed, affecting your hearing and balance.

Symptoms of labyrinthitis include:

The symptoms may be quite severe in the first week but usually get better after a few weeks. However, some cases can have much longer-lasting symptoms. This can have a major impact on a person's quality of life and their ability to do everyday tasks.

The labyrinth

The labyrinth is the innermost part of the ear. It contains two important parts:

  • the cochlea – this relays sounds to the brain and is responsible for hearing
  • the vestibular system – a complex set of fluid-filled channels responsible for your sense of balance

Inflammation of the labyrinth can disrupt both your hearing and sense of balance, triggering the symptoms of labyrinthitis.

The labyrinth usually becomes inflamed either because of:

  • a viral infection, such as a cold or flu
  • a bacterial infection, which is much less common

Read more about the causes of labyrinthitis.

Treating labyrinthitis

In most cases, the symptoms of labyrinthitis pass within a few weeks. Treatment for labyrinthitis involves a combination of bed rest and medication to help you cope better with the symptoms. In some cases you may need additional medication to fight the underlying infection.

A small number of people have persistent symptoms that last for several months, or possibly years.

These people will require a more intensive type of treatment called vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT). This treatment attempts to "retrain" the brain to cope with the altered signals that come from the vestibular system.

Who gets labyrinthitis?

Most cases of viral labyrinthitis occur in adults aged 30 to 60 years old.

Viral labyrinthitis is thought to be a relatively common ear condition among adults. Other types of ear infections are usually more widespread in children.

One study found that around one in six people who visited their GP with symptoms of vertigo had labyrinthitis.

Bacterial labyrinthitis is much less common. Younger children under two years old are more vulnerable to developing bacterial labyrinthitis.

Bacterial labyrinthitis carries a higher risk of causing permanent hearing loss. It's estimated that one in three cases of acquired hearing loss are caused by bacterial labyrinthitis. Read more about complications of labyrinthitis.

Labyrinthitis: Rebecca's story

Rebecca has labyrinthitis, an inner ear infection. In this video, she describes how it affected her balance and perception, and where she found help.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Dizziness

What you should do if you feel dizzy for no apparent reason, and common causes

Page last reviewed: 25/02/2013

Next review due: 25/02/2015